Tales From A Twin City.

Chelsea vs. Milan : 3 August 2016.

I drove from Ann Arbor in Michigan to Minneapolis in Minnesota in one ridiculous hop. It totaled out at 672 miles, took me over eleven hours and became the longest car journey of my life. There have been some long road trips for me watching Chelsea in the US (North Carolina to Pittsburgh, North Carolina to DC, North Carolina to Chicago, LA to Palo Alto, New York City to Charlotte, Charlotte to DC), but this one was the grand-daddy of them all. I only stopped four times – once for fuel, once for lunch, once for a drink and once at the Minnesota welcome centre – and thankfully the time went OK. I didn’t feel tired at all. The American Road kept me happy. I delved into a selection of FM radio stations to reduce the boredom, but you can only hear Chicago and Peter bloody Cetera so many times without going insane. I therefore hopped around some different stations a bit when things got tedious. I stayed clear of “Culvers” butter burgers, and all was fine.

The landscape was pretty flat around Michigan, but I noted many vineyards and wineries, which surprised me. I then swept wide and west past the suburbs of Chicago, my first port of call on this, my nineteenth trip to the USA. The Sears Tower, or whatever incarnation it is known by these days, was away in the distance. After I stopped at a down-at-heal “Hardees” for a burger and fries – can’t get more American than that – in Roscoe, Illinois, the scenery slowly changed and became more stimulating. The hills broadened, the fields turned greener, the sky opened up a little. Even the clouds looked more interesting. It became a lovely car trip.

I crossed the state line in to Minnesota as the rush-hour traffic was beginning to fade. My final approach seemed to electrify me. I shot past the little nest of downtown skyscrapers of St. Paul, the lesser of the two Twin Cities, and then continued on a further ten miles towards the far more impressive skyline of Minneapolis.

I genuinely knew little of the city to be honest. Cathy and myself had stopped for a few hours at the city’s airport on our long flight to Los Angeles in 2007, but I had not visited it in its own right. It was the home of Prince, bless him. It was the home of the Minnesota Twins, who were the opponents for my very first New York Yankees game in 1990. It was home to the Minnesota Vikings NFL team. The area was settled by many Scandinavians. There was a huge shopping mall in its suburbs. The city had skyways to keep people off the cold streets of winter and the scalding streets of winter. That was it.

For a geography graduate, I should have known more.

Ah, but there was also an Everything But The Girl song called “Twin Cities” from their 1991 album “Worldwide” and I loved it to death. It came out just after I had visited the US for the first time. This particular song was an ode to travel throughout that vast continent. It seemed to strike a chord for me. That particular band often wrote about travel, of foreign cities, of wanting to be elsewhere, and a few of their songs get me dreaming of foreign lands.

“And now I’m standing in a city that’s as pretty as an ocean in the night.

And we are twin cities. And we are that ocean. From the standing still. We are set in motion.”

At about 6.45pm, Minneapolis opened up before me and I-94 threw me right into the heart of the city. As I took a broad curve down over the river, the incredible black irregular block of brick, steel and glass of the US Bank Stadium greeted me. It was a definite jaw-dropping moment. Of course, I had done my homework – I knew we were opening it up, as we did with Dallas’ new pad in 2009 – and I had studied images of it from inside and out. But the stadium looked incredible. Its irregular surfaces defied rational description. Was this a mere stadium, or some sort of space-ship about to take off into the night?

For the second time in five days, I had a feeling that a stadium would prove to be the star of the show.

I met up with a few friends down at the anointed pub – “Brits” – on Monday and Tuesday evening, and it was a pleasure to bump into a few old friends for the first time on this trip. On the way to the pub on the Tuesday, I had spotted a young lad with a Chelsea shirt in my hotel and so I spoke to him and his mother about the game. They were from Kansas and this would be their first Chelsea match. Soon after, we were sharing a cab down to “Brits” and Erica and Cooper – only seven – were soon meeting up with a roomful of Chelsea fans from all over the US. However, not long into the night, with Neil Barnett and both Garry Stanley and Gary Chivers turning the air blue with some of their tales from the past, I noticed that the two of them had disappeared outside in the warm summer evening air. I hope that we had not scared them away.

On both nights, I didn’t get back to my hotel, no more than a five-minute walk away from the stadium, until 2.30am. Thankfully, on the mornings after, there was no hint of a hangover.

Minneapolis seemed a fine town, but devoid of too many pedestrians. I suspect that the skywayss have a lot to answer for. I noted a fair bit of quirky architecture and the usual smattering of corporate skyscrapers.

On the day of the game, I started off with a pint of Leinenkugel’s summer shandy in a bar near my hotel. It was 1.30pm. There were still seven hours until kick-off.

“Blimey, that’s like me having a pint at 8am on a Saturday matchday.”

I’d enjoyed a similar grapefruit shandy from the same company at the Detroit Tigers vs. Houston Astros game on the Sunday. What a refreshing drink. The summer shandy was cloudy and not half as refreshing. I walked to “Brits” and bumped into ex-pat Kev / Clive (old joke, ask Parky) on the way. He had travelled by 650cc motorbike from Detroit for the game and we swapped stories. Things were pretty quiet in “Brits” to be honest. I met up with Bob and Danny, both from California, and Phil from Iowa. A few more pints went down well. Bob and myself moved on to another bar called “Cuzzys” which was a fantastic place. Its floors sloped, and its walls were festooned with dollar bills hanging from every surface. It reminded me of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bar in Key West “Sloppy Joe’s.”

Back at my hotel, we met up with Danny, Mike, Tim and Eugene, lads that I have met over the years on my travels around the US. More beers, and a few more laughs. Time was moving on and so at just before 8pm, we walked towards the spanking new stadium. Throughout the past few days, we had hardly seen any Milan shirts. There was also a gnawing realisation that the good people of Minneapolis were out in force to witness the opening of the stadium rather than to see a football match. In a few bars, we had even seen fans – presumably going to the game – with the violet of the Vikings jersey on show. We envisaged another quiet night in the Chelsea section and the stadium as a whole.

There seemed to be a little confusion about access into the stadium and the most direct way was unable to be followed due to fences blocking our path. This was evidence that the stadium’s immediate areas were still requiring attention. Bob and myself took a lift to a quiet, air-conditioned, carpeted walkway – a skywalk, I suppose – which took us into the stadium midway up. In all honesty, at this stage, it all seemed a little too alien for me. It did not seem like a sports stadium. It seemed like an airport. There were wide concourses, and signs pointing here, there and everywhere. It did not seem right.

Then, we came out onto a viewing area – again, lots and lots of space – and we were able to see inside the stadium for the first time. Outside, the irregular shape of the stadium is said to resemble a Viking long-boat (for some reason, I used to love drawing those at school) with its angled lines and suchlike. Inside, the stadium appears huge, almost too huge, or at least too high. It was another jaw-dropping moment for me.

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I have been inside a few NFL stadia over the years – though I am yet to attend a game, no surprise there – and the last one that I visited which was equally stunning was the Dallas Cowboys Stadium. This one in Minneapolis though seemed almost perfect. At the Cowboys stadium, there are layer after layer of executive boxes where the corporate world can watch in air-conditioned isolation, but this leaves less seats for the common fan (if one exists in the NFL – it certainly seems a working class sport attended by the rich middle-class). This one seemed to have a larger proportion of general seating, even though the seats at the very rear of both side stands seemed to be so high as to be needing oxygen masks. It certainly ranks as the highest stadium I have seen. Probably higher than Dallas, probably higher than Camp Nou, certainly higher than the North Stand at Old Trafford.

At each end were massive TV screens. Everywhere, the violet / purple of the Vikings.

We took an elevator down a level and found our seats among the Chelsea section in the western side of the stadium, directly behind the goal. I looked around; just beyond our section, which continually stood for the duration of the game, there was the usual mixture of Real / Milan / Juve / Inter / Barca / Arsenal / Manchester United shirts. However, Chelsea was in the majority.

Back in 2005 – at the old Giants Stadium in New Jersey – I attended another Chelsea vs. Milan game, but on that occasion, Chelsea were outnumbered by four or five to one. I know the demographics of the New York area are so different to that of Minnesota, but that just shows how far we have traveled in such a short period of time.

I spotted a few familiar faces in our ranks. Gary Chivers and Garry Stanley were a few rows below me.

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The players finished their pre-match routines and the clock ticked-down. The US flag fluttered as a tattooed girl sung the national anthem. The teams entered the now jam-packed arena. The players appeared so close to us.

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Antonio Conte’s team was again strong.

Courtois.

Aina.

Terry.

Cahill.

Azpilicueta.

Matic.

Fabregas.

Willian.

Traore.

Costa.

Moses.

The 4/4/2 aligned Costa and Traore for the first time.

It was good to see Diego back in the team.

Milan – playing in virtually an all-black kit – attacked the end where the Chelsea supporters, numbering possibly no more than five hundred at most, in a little tight block, were stood. Of course, there were Chelsea fans elsewhere, but this was the equivalent of an away section, the notion that movers and shakers in charge of these tours are only vaguely acquainted.

My friend Steve Rea, from New Orleans – who writes blogs on the official website – had asked me about my thoughts about my travels over to the US for these tours. I shared a few things with him, and included a moan about “other” fans getting tickets in apparently Chelsea-only sections. Things can often get a little tetchy in some cases. I remember getting annoyed by some Barcelona fans standing right in front of me in DC last summer. My closing comment to Steve for his article was – knowingly controversial – “sometimes segregation is a good thing.”

It didn’t surprise me that this line was cut from the final edit.

But certainly, for football games, it is surely key.

Who wants to be stood next to opposing fans?

Get us all together, one block, one voice, one song.

Us and them.

Make some noise.

Milan were the first to cause problems when Abate was able to ghost in at the far post to connect with a cross, after drifting inside a dozing Dave. Milan looked quite sharp and I hoped for better things from us.

We had torn shirts as Traore and then Diego were manhandled. Diego headed over from a Traore cross. Milan then broke well and we had to rely on a fine Courtois block, with his legs, to avoid us conceding.

The noise in the Chelsea section was not great and I had rolled my eyes as a couple of “waves” were attempted around the stadium. Thankfully, they did not get far, unlike at Ann Arbor on Saturday. On that particular afternoon, I found it so ironic that the only section of fans not joining in with this loathsome and tiresome activity were the ones that had been trying to sing all afternoon. Sometimes I come away from games in the USA and think “yes, you’re getting it” but on that day, in The Big House, I marked America down.

After one wave faltered, I thought “enough of this shite” and bellowed out twelve “Zigger Zaggers” (a personal best, thank you very much) and the Chelsea support around me rallied a little.

Chelsea played a little better and had a few attacks on goal. Victor Moses, as is his wont during these games, had a forceful run out left. Another of his runs ended with a shot which rebounded nicely for Bertrand Traore to head home from close range.

Chelsea 1 Milan 0.

It pleased Minneapolis-native Tom, standing in-front of me, that the PA played “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince to mark the first goal scored in his city’s sparking new stadium.

Dave drove hard at the Milan goal but his shot breezed past the far post. We seemed in control.

Sadly, before the break, we conceded a free-kick just outside the box, and Bonaventura – pet detective – curled a stunning shot over the wall and past Thibaut.

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Milan started a little stronger at the start of the second-half. By now, the Chelsea support was quite pitiful. Hardly any songs were heard. The manager then shook things up a little, bringing on N’Golo Kante for his Chelsea debut – how small he looks, so reminiscent of Claude Makelele – and then there was a huge cheer for the introduction of Eden Hazard. They replaced Moses and Traore. It was lovely to see Kante dart around, but first he posed for a photo. Bless him. Welcome to Chelsea, N’Golo.

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Hazard was immediately involved. Willian’s shot was well saved by the Milan ‘keeper. Thankfully, the Chelsea support got behind the team a little more.

More changes ensued, with Ivanovic, Oscar and Batshuayi in for Aina, Fabregas and Costa.

The songs continued and we urged the team on.

A silly handball by a Milan defender allowed Oscar to fire the resulting penalty home.

“Getinyoufuckingbeauty.”

Chelsea 2 Milan 1.

Eden seemed to be elbowed in the jaw and stayed on the floor for a while. His new jersey did not display a number and the Chelsea fans in Nerdistan were excited to the point of collapse.

Chalobah and my mate Cuadrado were introduced late on.

We lustily sang a chorus of “fackemall, fackemall – United, West Ham, Liverpool” and one middle-aged woman turned around in an adjoining section and gave us the dirtiest of looks.

In front of me, Tommy had his finest moment.

To the old chant of “She fell over!” he sang “He’s Chalobah!” and gained a few credibility points.

That deserves to catch on next season.

You heard if first in Minnesota.

Four minutes from the end, we added to our lead when my boy Cuadrado did ever so well to supply an onrushing Oscar with a deft pass. He tucked it home well.

Chelsea 3 Milan 1.

This was a much better performance from us and I hope and pray we can build on it in Bremen on Sunday.

At the end of the game, it was lovely to see JT head over to sign some shirts before clapping us and heading up the tunnel. I said my goodbyes to a few and at that point my plan was going to head on back to “Brits” for a couple of hours. There were five of us left – Brian (Texas), Danny (California), Josh (Minnesota), Tommy (California) and me (Nebraska) – and we were some of the very last to leave. We posed with my “Vinci Per Noi” banner and left the stadium.

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And what a stadium it had been.

Sadly, the lure of my hotel bed, a mere five-minute walk away, proved too tempting.

It was time for me to call it a night.

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Tales From The Coach And Horses.

Norwich City vs. Chelsea : 1 March 2016.

I can well remember being at work on the afternoon of Wednesday 1 March 2006 and opening up an email from my friend Daryl. In a brief sentence, he had written that Peter Osgood – my childhood hero – had been taken very ill at a family funeral in Slough, close to his native Windsor. Other emails and texts from close friends quickly followed. Within a very short space of time, my head began spinning as I tried to take in this horrible news. I remember one friend, Andy I think, commenting “it doesn’t look good.” That one phrase sent me reeling. I very soon feared the worst. My mind suddenly began preparing my body for some sad news. The announcement quickly followed.

Peter Osgood was dead.

He was only 59 years old.

There was a horrid sense of loss. It seemed to be so unfair. He was taken from us at a relatively young age. For a whole generation of Chelsea supporters, although the mid-‘sixties to early-‘seventies team was crammed full of fan favourites, there was only one Ossie. For me, like thousands of others, in the school playground, when I played football among mates, I was Peter Osgood. I had the number nine on my shirt. My mother had sewn a “home-made” number nine on my shorts to match. He was everything to me and many others.

Losing Ossie hurt so much.

That evening at Anfield, England played Uruguay in a friendly and there was a minute’s silence for Peter Osgood and also former England manager Ron Greenwood, who had died a few weeks earlier. Fittingly Joe Cole scored a last minute-winner.

The Chelsea community soon came together to remember Peter Osgood. There were emotional eulogies and resonating testimonials to one of our most cherished and admired footballers. On the following Saturday, I was so grateful that I was going to our away game at West Brom (I only went to half the aways in that season, so my attendance wasn’t guaranteed) so that I could grieve among friends. Before the game, we held up black and white photographs from 1970, and there was another minute of silence.

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Our next game was against Tottenham, and I wanted to honour Peter Osgood in my own way. I spent many hours producing a banner of Ossie’s face, based on that classic photograph of him at the Mitcham training ground in around 1972/1973. A few friends and myself posed with it in the beer garden of The Goose, before I unfurled it during the minute of applause for him before the game.

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William Gallas’ thunderbolt in the last minute sent us all delirious that afternoon. It was such an emotional day, and certainly a fitting send-off for our much-loved idol.

I was also proud and privileged to attend the memorial service at Stamford Bridge on Sunday 1 October, when around one thousand Chelsea supporters watched from The Shed as Peter Osgood’s ashes were laid to rest under the penalty spot. It was a very classy affair, fit for The King. The service was attended by Chelsea Pensioners and Grenadier Guards. Peter Kenyon, Ron Harris, Tommy Docherty and Peter Bonetti spoke of their former friend and colleague. It was a blustery and rainy day, and everyone there will remember how the sun shone just as the ashes were laid to rest.

In 2007, I took my Peter Osgood banner on tour in the USA, but after a long session after a game against Club America in Palo Alto, I carelessly lost it. I was dumbstruck with sadness when I woke up in my motel room, and realised that my pride and joy was missing. I had presumed that I had left it in a cab. I was gutted. Imagine my surprise when Mike, who runs the New York Blues, presented it to me at a baseball game in San Diego a few days later. I had evidently just left it pinned to a wall in the “Rose & Crown.” I thanked Mike, shrugged, and said :

“I guess that Ossie just didn’t want to leave the pub.”

Ten years on, these memories were recalled as our away game at Carrow Road drew near. As fate would have it, the tenth anniversary of Peter Osgood’s passing would coincide with a match against one of his former teams. In 1976/1977, Ossie played three times for Norwich City in the top flight, on loan from Southampton, who were alongside us in the Second Division.

And I had decided to mark the occasion by taking along my Peter Osgood banner too.

This was our second away game in just four days, and four of us had decided to make a trip out of it, due the long distances involved. I had booked a hotel near the stadium and I was really relishing the chance to relax and unwind in the fine Norfolk city. I would be treating it as a mini-Euro Away, but without time-differences, tear gas and Toblerones.

I collected PD as early as eight ‘clock and Parky soon after. The drive to Norwich, nine counties away, was just a few miles shy of 250 miles in length. And although league points were at stake, a lot of my thoughts were focused on Peter Osgood as I drove east through horrible driving conditions.

At around 10.30pm, my car slowly edged past Windsor and Slough.

I made slow progress around the M25 – constant rain, hideous – but then the weather brightened up just as the first road sign for Norwich came in to view as we exited the M11. I was able to relax further, and I enjoyed driving on the relatively-newly improved A11. It was a lovely road in fact. Norwich was in our sights, the music was blaring, and we were nearing the end of a five-and-a-half-hour drive.

At 1.30pm, we were parked up outside our hotel, and a few minutes later we joined up with Dave, the fourth member of the day’s Away Club, in a boozer just over the road called “The Coach & Horses.” Pints were quickly demolished, and a few Chelsea pals joined us. This was not planned, but the train station was only five minutes away. Within thirty minutes or so, it was plainly obvious that the pub would be one of the main Chelsea boozers of the day.

Via a tip-off from a mate, who had heard on the Chelsea grapevine that a few PSG tickets were back on sale, Dave was able to quickly call the box office and order a couple.

Job done.

The idea, originally, was to head off up the hill in to the centre of the city on a little pub crawl of our own, but we had heard rumours that many pubs, like at Southampton on Saturday, were for home fans only. We decided to cut our losses and stay put.

“Another San Miguel, please.”

We stood at the bar and chatted away, welcoming friends from near and far. The place became rammed. And yet the game seemed hours away.

I briefly chatted to Callum, who had taken the notion of marking the ten-year anniversary of Peter Osgood’s passing to the next level. He had brought along three five metre banners, spelling out “Ossie The King”, but was a little concerned about smuggling them in to the stadium. I wished him well.

I chatted to Tom.

“Terrible drive up, Tom. Horrible conditions. Wet, spray, and that was just inside the car.”

The only surprise was that none of the local constabulary, nor the fine upstanding gentlemen of the Fulham OB, had called to visit. Nobody within the pub was looking for trouble, for sure, and there was a lovely relaxed feel, but you might expect the police to call by, especially since it was only a ten-minute walk to Carrow Road. Hardly anyone was wearing Chelsea colours of course. On away days such as these, when it is all about blending in and not making a scene, I always wonder about the sanity of others – few in number to be fair – who smother themselves in Chelsea regalia, then wonder why they are not allowed in to pubs and, on very rare occasions these days, get the occasional “slap” from a wannabee hoodlum from the host city.

“Another San Miguel, please.”

Amid the banter and laughter, Peter Osgood filtered through my thoughts. Everyone has an Ossie story, and it has been wonderful reading about some of his escapades the past few days. I always remember a story that he told at an evening in Warminster in around 1997. Peter was in great form that night and this one story is not often shared. It went something like this.

“I was an Arsenal fan as a boy, to be fair, and when I was around fifteen I was playing for a team in my home town of Windsor called Spittal’s Old Boys. One day I had heard that Chelsea had sent a chap down, a scout, to watch me play, but I had already played a full game in the morning. I ended up only playing a half. I scored a couple. I thought I had done OK, but maybe not enough to impress the Chelsea representative. Believe it or not, ladies and gentlemen, he had been impressed with what he had seen, and had decided to sign me up for Chelsea there and then. Well, this was fantastic. Only half a game, and I was going to Chelsea. Fantastic.”

There was a pause, and I had an idea there would be a punchline.

“So, that just goes to show how easy it was, in those days, to sign for Tottenham.”

The crowd erupted in laughter. Nice one Os.

The pints were flowing, and the clock behind the bar appeared to be standing still. More fans arrived. We could hardly move. Laugh after laugh, pint after pint. Eventually, the time passed and it was time to move on. It was around 6.45pm.

We walked down to Carrow Road which sits alongside the River Wensum underneath a bluff of higher land to the west. There was a nod to a few familiar faces outside and then the bag check.

Camera – in.

Ossie flag – in.

Thankfully, inside, I soon saw that Callum had successfully smuggled the three large flags in.

PD appeared.

“Pint Chris?”

We were in our seats, nearer the front than usual, with time to spare, but Alan and Gary – who were travelling up on the official club coaches – were not in.

With kick-off approaching, the Peter Osgood flags were unwrapped and hoisted above heads.

“OSSIE

THE

KING”

It was time to unwrap my banner. Parky and myself easily persuaded our neighbours to hold it aloft, taught in the Norfolk air, for a few minutes.

I was more than happy. Job done.

Peter Osgood : RIP

The teams entered the pitch, and amidst the frantic folding of my banner, sorting out my camera for the ensuing game, thanking those around me and answering texts from friends in the USA that had seen my flag on TV, I unfortunately missed our opening goal.

Bloody typical.

The cheers of the Chelsea faithful were a heartening sound. Such an early goal – Kenedy, shot – was just what we had needed in our quest for three points and – whisper it – the heady heights of eighth place should we be successful.

Guus Hiddink had surprised a few people by including Kenedy and also Bertrand Traore. I was also a little surprised that Nemanja Matic had been recalled too.

As the game continued, the text messages kept rolling in. We live in such a small world these days. I was soon showing a young lad in front a video clip of the flag which was sent to me from Pablo in Pennsylvania.

Fantastic stuff.

Alan and Gary appeared, ten minutes in, having been delayed on their coach, thus missing the banners and, most importantly, the goal.

They were fuming, and quite rightly.

On the pitch, we occasionally played some nice football, with Eden Hazard involved in some attacks at the Norwich defence. Traore was involved too. In the stands, the Chelsea support was not setting the world alight. It was as if the long distances involved in getting to the game had made us tired and weary. A free-kick from Cesc Fabregas, and Ruddy – in pink – saved well. Just before the break, Traore played the ball in to Diego Costa, who carefully flicked the ball over Mr. Pink.

2-0, you beauty.

Game over?

Not a bit of it.

Norwich began the livelier in the second-half and journeyman Cameron Jerome had two early chances to score. His second effort flew off the top of the bar. The warning signs were there and the Chelsea support grew edgier.

The manager replaced Traore and Oscar with Mikel and Willian.

Shortly after a well-worked goal cut through our defence and Nathan Redmond firmly struck past the man in black, Thibaut Courtois.

2-1 and the game, sadly, was back on.

With the last quarter approaching, the Chelsea support grew even more agitated.

Baba replaced Kenedy.

Chances were at a premium, especially at our end, where there was a little banter between both sets of fans. An old favourite from 2005 was aired.

“We’ve got Abramovich, you’ve got a drunken bitch.”

Fabregas came close. We attacked with a little more conviction. Matic headed over from a Willian corner. Then Diego raced at the nervous Norwich defence, showing the guile and tenacity of last season, but his efforts were thwarted.

Some had to leave the game early to catch the 10pm train to London.

The nerves were jangling.

“Come on Chels!”

Norwich threatened again.

“Fackinblowupref.”

Relief at the final whistle, and knowing looks from everyone.

Phew.

Up to the giddy heights of eighth place.

Phew again.

This had been a rough and tumble affair, and reminded me a little of our more – what word can I use? – pragmatic performances of the latter part of last season. But, as we headed back to the centre of the pleasant city for a fine Chinese meal, we were just so grateful for three points. It had been an increasingly nervy affair and we agreed that the support was a little “off” too. It was an altogether odd evening on the banks of the Wensum. And how we would have loved to have seen a little more of the wonderful qualities of someone like Peter Osgood on show.

Bless him.

 

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Tales From The U.S. Capital.

Chelsea vs. Barcelona : 28 July 2015.

As I have mentioned previously, ten years ago I was in the US to see Chelsea play two of our three tour games that summer. This summer’s trip has a lot in common with that trip a decade ago. In 2005, I flew in and out of Charlotte and saw us play in Washington DC and New Jersey. This year, I flew in and out of Washington and see games in New Jersey, Charlotte and Washington DC.

Three locations are forever tied together in my personal history of following the boys over land and sea.

With two down and one to go on this tour, I left the clean, crisp and charming city of Charlotte at around 11am on the Sunday. I had breakfasted at a busy local restaurant with my good friend JR from Detroit and his family. I am still having gastronomic flashbacks and sugar rushes at the memory of the apple pancakes which I waded through. Another wonderful Chelsea road trip was ahead of me.

Charlotte to DC and another four hundred miles on the American road.

It was a perfect Sunday as we headed north-east. I ate up the miles in my…cough, cough…red Chevy. Oh the irony of driving around the US in the vehicular equivalent of a Manchester United shirt. JR and I chatted incessantly about all sorts on the long drive through North Carolina and Virginia. The time soon flew past. The first three hours seemed like thirty minutes. Others were travelling to DC by plane. Others by train. We were not the only ones travelling by automobile.

Around thirty minutes behind us, JR heard via our friend Janset that she was travelling up in a van with Paul Canoville, Mario Melchiot and a few more of Chelsea In America’s finest. JR also heard that the three from Iowa – Phil, Chris and Sam – were on the road too.

It seemed like a Chelsea edition of “Wacky Races”, but instead of Penelope Pitstop, the Anthill Mob and the Slag Brothers, this edition consisted of The Schmuckle Bus, The Cannersmobile 5000 and The Iowa Hot Rod – complete with blue smoke bombs. We later heard that Jeremy from Kansas was on the road too, but maybe he was taken out early in his Beardwagon by Dick Dastardly.

It is not known if Sergei and Dmitry from Badgercrack, Nebraska ever left the start line in their Facepaint Coupe.

The traffic began to slow, however. A trip that ought to have taken six hours eventually took eight. It was especially brutal north of Richmond on I-95. Thankfully a bottleneck cleared and the end was in sight. As we headed up over a gradual incline on I-395, a magnificent view greated me. Around three miles away stood the thin needle of the Washington Monument, the sun lighting up its west face, and with the white marble of the Lincoln Memorial to the west and the half-dome of the Capitol to the east. Down below us to the right was the monumental bulk of The Pentagon.

I was awestruck. It seemed that I had done all of my sightseeing in DC in a few seconds.

Within ten minutes we had arrived safely at our Hyatt Hotel just over the Potomac River from DC in Arlington, Virginia.

On the Sunday evening, Erin, JR and myself zipped in to DC for a bite to eat – my first burger of the trip – and then walked around the centrally located monuments of The Mall. Each one was floodlit and very photogenic. I took a few snaps, though only with my camera phone. I had neglected to pack my normal camera battery charger and was having a little OCD – obsessive Chelsea disorder – of my own. My number one task on the Monday would be to buy a new one. We had a lovely time, though. It brought back memories of my first time in DC, 1989, when I enjoyed a similar evening walking tour, which was provided free of charge by the youth hostel. There were also memories of that 2005 tour, with Roma, her two daughters and myself running through the sprinklers on those wide grass lawns to keep cool.

In 2015, the torrid summer heat of DC was fading quickly and it was a very enjoyable start to our time in DC. For the first time ever, I took an “Uber” to get back to our hotel.

Monday was another perfect day on this trip. I spent some time writing up “Charlotte” and then met up with Erin and JR again to visit the historic Ford’s Theatre, where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. This was the number one sight on my list for DC. I have luckily visited most of the other main sites on my other two trips. I have been a keen Civil War enthusiast for over twenty years, and one of my most memorable days in the United States was spent at the stunning Gettysburg Battlefield in 2010. Obviously, Lincoln was the most famous protagonist of all in the seismic war which battled states against states, even families against families, and which almost ripped America apart. To witness the exact place where his life was sadly ended was another interesting and yet emotionally raw experience. The tour guide set up the scene amazingly well – with sensitive comments about the atmosphere and sensory feel of that evening – and explained with fine detail how events unfolded during the hours leading up to the fatal shot.

At the end, we walked over the road outside the theatre, whose large size surprised me, to the house which contained the parlour where Lincoln eventually died from his gunshot wound some seven hours later.

I had to double-take at the sign outside the house which forbade visitors to take in firearms.

Or maybe it was America being ironic.

I certainly didn’t appreciate a sizeable shop adjoined to the house, selling a vast array of Lincoln souvenirs, a mere five yards away from where he exhaled his last mortal breath.

I hot-tailed to Dupont Circle to buy my battery charger; I could relax.

On the Monday evening, I walked the mile or so up to the “Four Courts” pub which is where the local Chelsea supporters group in the DC area – “The Beltway Blues” – meet for matches. This was another long night. Just after I arrived at 7.30pm, Neil Barnet hosted another “Q & A” session with Bobby, Canners and Mario. I had heard most of the stories before, so sat in a quieter part of the large bar with JR and chatted with many other fans. It was another lovely evening, although not as manic as Charlotte. The usual suspects were present.

Andy kindly presented two “OC Hooligans” tour shirts for Parky and myself.

There was a photograph with Cath, Sambuca in hand.

Tim from Philly kindly gave me a few Yankee trading cards.

Photos with many good friends; some old, some very old, but some new.

I met up with Kathryn and Tim, good friends and two of the Beltway Blues, who I met on the bus taking us from Philly to Chester for the 2012 MLS All-Star Game.

I was impressed that Janset was wearing an original 1981-1982 shiny Le Coq Sportif shirt – one of my favourites – and I then gave her a crash course in the casual sub culture 1977 to date, which she really seemed to appreciate.

Many laughs, many smiles, many photographs.

But one thing was missing.

Talk about the game against Barcelona.

I definitely approved of this.

This simply mirrored what happens in my local, “The Goose” on the North End Road, on virtually all match days. As I have said before, Chelsea is what brings us together but the actual football takes up a surprisingly small amount of “talk time” on match days.

On my long and arduous drive down from West Virginia to Charlotte on the Friday, one town haunted me. As I set off early in the morning, a sign on I-81 said “Roanoke 202 miles.” For the next two hours I appeared to be driving in quicksand since the distances took forever to decrease.

“Roanoke 197 miles.”

“Roanoke 189 miles.”

“Roanoke 183 miles.”

“Roanoke 179 miles.”

“Roanoke 174 miles.”

Fackinell.

Well, late in the evening at “Four Courts” I met the chairman of the Roanoke Chelsea Supporters Club. Not only did this give me a wry smile, but it made me gasp. Roanoke is not a huge town – 97,000 according to my own personal information resource Akipedia – and yet it had its very own supporters group.

As the kids say these days –

“Mind. Blown.”

Two lads from London arrived late on the scene, just as the bar was calling last orders, and as I was thinking of heading back to the hotel. They had just come over for the one game on a quick “in and out mission.” We shared a couple of final beers. Then, Danny from Massachusetts and myself headed a few doors down for a gobsmackingly tasty Indian.

It was around 2.30am.

I needed to get back to the hotel.

In a slightly – only slightly of course – inebriated state I shuffled down Wilson Boulevard. I spotted a “7/11” and fancied a nightcap.

A beer?

A short?

Nope.

A “Reece’s Peanut Butter Ice Cream Cup.”

At 3am in Arlington, Virginia I was living the American dream.

I drifted off to sleep, dreaming of peanut butter, curried turnips, naan bread, Benetton rugby shirts and Torres’ goal against Barcelona in 2012.

On Game Day Number Three, I awoke with no hangover. This was a huge surprise. I am surprised that it didn’t make the papers. Rather than head back to “Four Courts”, a few of us were headed in to the city centre to meet my good friend Steve, who was travelling down to the evening’s game from his home in Philadelphia, but also Team Roma, which was already in DC, and taking a time out to show Super Shawn a few of the main tourist sites.

At around 12.45pm, I walked the short distance from Union Station to the Phoenix Park Hotel, where I met up with The Bobster and Steve. It was a pleasure to see Steve again, who I last met on a Friday afternoon in Manhattan last month as part of my baseball trip. In June we met at “McSorley’s” in the East Village, this time it was “The Dubliner” in DC.

Bizarrely, within minutes, three lads from home – two from Dorset, one from Scunthorpe – burst in to the bar and there were smiles all round. Even more strangely, I first met these chaps, and their oft-spotted “South Dorset Chelsea” Union Jack – out in Kuala Lumpur in 2011.

Now, it seems, we can’t stop bumping in to each other.

Even more incredibly, JR – who was visiting the American History Museum with Erin – had just bumped into Roma, Vanessa and Shawn a mile or so away.

Chelsea world – I have said it before – is such a small world.

Before the others arrived, we enjoyed each other’s’ company. It was the first time all three of us had been together since Philly in 2012. Food was ordered, the beers flowed and we spoke about a wide range of topics, including the plans for the new stadium. Steve is yet to visit Stamford Bridge and we spoke, seriously, about concocting a robust yet devious plan to appease Steve’s wife Terry into allowing him a visit.

“Steve. You are an architect. That is reason alone.”

Roma, Vanessa and Shawn arrived at 4pm, clearly exhausted after walking around the city for a few hours. They sat and cooled off. It was lovely to see them again.

Outside, we had spotted many more Barcelona shirts than those of Chelsea. This was no surprise, since Barcelona can genuinely lay claim to be one of the big three global names alongside Real Madrid and Manchester United. Steve wondered if we are far away from their level. This was a question which I didn’t really answer, though I suppose we are undeniably one of the fastest rising stars of the modern football scene. I still, honestly, struggle to come to terms with our surge in popularity over the past ten years.

Others joined us. Rick and Beckie from Iowa. JR and Erin. Dennis and Dre from Seattle. The clans were gathering. Again, the game was hardly mentioned.

Roma met up with a family from her home town in Tennessee, who were in town for the game, but who were – gasp – Barcelona fans. Roma had coached the two young lads, resplendent in Barca shirts, in the local AYSO league. I explained that I was a Chelsea season ticket holder and, without thinking, soon said that I was “at Camp Nou in 2012.”

I then sheepishly admitted to Roma that this was not the most tactful of things to say. We all laughed though. And I think I laughed the longest.

They left to spend time together, and made their way independently to the stadium by car.

Despite warnings of lengthy travel times by car to Fed-Ex Field, which sits on the very edge of the DC conurbation in Maryland, the three of us booked an Uber car to take us to the game. We left at around 6.15pm. The game was to begin at 8pm. We envisaged reaching the stadium at 7pm.

For an hour and thirty minutes we sat with increasing tension as the driver – a cricket enthusiast from India – edged east. While we moaned about the traffic, the minutes ticked by. On the very last section – a mile or so out – we noticed many passengers leaving their drivers to battle on and walk the final distance. We counted the number of replica shirts. It was split something along the lines of 90% Barcelona / 10% Chelsea. Now, I know that the afore-mentioned casual subculture hasn’t really permeated into the US sporting psyche just yet, but even if some Chelsea fans were eschewing club colours, as is the tendency in SW6, this still represented an overwhelming bias in favour of Barcelona.

We wondered if the game would sell out the huge home of the Washington Redskins, which was once the largest in the National Football League. Ever since we heard that the magical skills of Lionel Messi would not be present, I personally thought that the attendance would suffer. As we edged ever closer, touts lined the approach roads offering tickets.

At 7.45pm, we arrived. There was still a ten minute walk – uphill, damn it – to the large and aesthetically messy stadium. On the final few hundred yards, we heard the national anthem from inside. The briefest of bag checks, and we were in. With ridiculous good fortune, we were inside in time for the kick-off. The stadium was not full, but I knew only too well how many were still outside in cars.

Due to my rushed arrival, I took a while to settle.

Again, the usual scan of the team, a scan to see if there were many friends close by, a scan of the setting and a scan of the replica shirts. It was easy to see that Barcelona greatly outnumbered us in the stadium, unless the Chelsea fans had followed the lead of Rick (Lacoste), Steve (Ralph Lauren), JR (Lacoste) and myself (Monclair).

The stadium was more or less as I remembered it from 2005 when we watched Chelsea beat DC United 2-1 with goals from Duff and Crespo in front of 25,000. It wasn’t a bad match to be fair, and we watched from the same eastern end behind the goal as in 2015. Ten years ago, I had driven to the game – no traffic – and had given a brief interview with a local TV station before the game, when the main question seemed to be about the perceived inadequacies of the local MLS team compared to the all-conquering visitors. When we went 1-0 down, I wondered if the interviewer was re-writing his script for his postgame analysis. I remember being scalded by a “soccer Mom” for knocking in to her when Duffer equalised. It emphasised to me how important it is to have segregation at football games. Sharing the same space with fans supporting opposing teams is always a problem, due mainly to the passions involved in our sport.

Chelsea in all white. I like that strip.

Barcelona in Catalan yellow and red stripes, with blue shorts and yellow socks.

The pitch seemed small and very close to the stands. Of course an NFL pitch is relatively narrow. It was not a stadium that I could easily like. It just appeared to be rather ugly, with executive boxes in the middle tiers, upper tiers sectioned off, brutal concrete everywhere. I bet that the Redskins will be building a new one before we know it. The new generation of NFL stadia seem a lot sleeker than this one.

So. Our team.

In goal was Thibaut, the hero of Charlotte.

In defence, Dave at left back, Kurt Zouma and Gary Cahill in the middle, Ivanovic on the right.

In the midfield two, Matic and Magic Hat.

In the three, Oscar, Hazard and…who? I didn’t recognise the chap. Ah, Kenedy.

Washington is as good a place as any for a chap called Kenedy to debut.

Up front, looking mean and menacing, Diego Costa.

Sadly, Roma, Vanessa and Shawn did not make the kick-off. I hoped they would soon be in. Again, as in Charlotte, and as in most US games, “our end” was full of supporters of the other team. I know that segregation is a prickly issue in America, but it can’t be hard to designate – say – one thousand Chelsea tickets to the Iowa Blues, the New York Blues, the North Texas Blues, the Beltway Blues, the Boston Blues, the Motor City Blues, the Roanoke Blues, the Badgercrack Blues et al, and then two thousand to other Chelsea fans fans to bolster that key segment of support. It was clear early on that the two main singing sections were too spread out, and with a horrible mix of Barcelona fans and “quieter” Chelsea fans too.

We began well I thought. An early Zouma header tested Ter Stegen. Matic seemed to impress straight away, winning tackles and prodding the ball intelligently. Although Messi and Neymar were missing, one familiar face and major irritant was playing.

Luis Suarez. I disliked you then and I dislike you now.

I wonder if the Suarez and Ivanovic subplot might continue.

A header from goal machine Mikel, a shot from Oscar. Barcelona were second best in the opening minutes. A magnificent run and dribble, leaving the entire Catalan nation in his wake, enabled Eden Hazard to dance in to the Barcelona box and calmly prod the ball low and into the goal.

Fantastic.

Barcelona countered, but our defence and Courtois especially were able to withstand any attempts on goal. Suarez was always a looming presence, though, and I like the look of Rakitic.A Chelsea free-kick taken by the involved Oscar rattled the bar. We were definitely on top.

Thankfully, Roma, Vanessa, and Shawn appeared alongside Bob and myself. The traffic had been awful. In addition to an ugly stadium, the Redskins also chose an ugly location for their new home.

Despite taking the lead, the Chelsea support in the area where we were based was at best piecemeal. We tried, but to be honest I soon gave up. My throat was still smarting from Charlotte. Every time a Chelsea song – and there was a nice variety – got going, it was drowned out by the annoying single grunt of “Barca!”

There were four FCB fans in front of me. There were two quiet Chelsea fans behind me. It was going to be an uphill struggle off the pitch.

The football was still of a good quality. Diego Costa should have scored after being set up by the neat Fabregas, but his shot was drilled wide. It seemed that Suarez was our main irritant, but Courtois did well to smother his few strikes on goal.

At half-time, we were happy.

Jose made two changes at the break with a Brazilian themed double substitution.

Wilian and Ramires for Oscar and Kenedy.

Soon into the second period, there was a repeat of my 2005 altercation, when a Barcelona fan and I had a few choice words. It was so pithy as to be unworthy of repeating.

I noted that I could see hardly any empty seats. Even the skyboxes appeared packed.

On the pitch, Diego came close, but then Suarez – why did it have to be him? – managed to lift the ball over the advancing Courtois. In a scene reminiscent of Anfield in 2005, the ball was hacked away by Zouma, but after the referee had already signalled a goal. Of course, all of the Chelsea had varying views of the incident. My view – over one hundred yards away – was perfect.

No goal.

1-1.

So…we then watched as Barcelona took over. And I got more and more irritated by the Barcelona fans around me. Having the enemy so close…breathing on me…might be OK in American sports, but it makes me feel uneasy. I’m no hooligan, but my tempers rose with each of their mocking chants.

We had to endure “BARCA / CHELSEA / BARCA / CHELSEA / BARCA / CHELSEA.”

I even found myself joining in, waving the white flag of surrender.

Ugh.

From behind me –

“Mourinho never beats Barca.”

A worry as Diego Costa appeared to be hurt. Please not his hamstring. He was substituted, and replaced by Falcao. On sixty-five minutes, Sandro – linked with us recently – stepped past Moses, who had been one of a flurry of substitutes from both teams on the hour – and curled a sublime shot past Courtois’ outstretched dive.

The stadium erupted, and the four Barcelona fans in front screamed.

“Count to ten Chris, count to ten.”

We somehow worked some chances. An acrobatic volley from Falcao is still in the air as I write, maybe over Florida by now. Ramires, taking a touch too many perhaps, shot well wide. The minutes ticked by. Moses did ever so well down in front of us, but his drilled centre evaded everyone. Our support rallied and we hoped for an equaliser.

The gate was announced as 79,000.

Bloody fantastic.

It could turn out to be our biggest attendance all season long.

Roma, bless her, was shrieking wildly throughout the second half.

“Let’s Go Chelsea” followed by that crazy smile.

With just five minutes remaining, Willian sent over a teasing centre, but the ball was knocked vertically. It seemed to take forever to come down, but a magnificently-timed leap by Gary Cahill met the ball before others could pounce. The ball looped – a la Ivanovic in Amsterdam – up and down before nestling inside the goal.

“YESYOUFUCKINGBEAUTY.”

The joy was palpable. It was a friendly, but this meant so much.

Willian and Moses had a very late chance to win it, but inexcusably managed to jump for the same ball on the far post. A late Barcelona chance flew past the post.

2-2.

More penalties.

With perfect timing, Brian from Charlotte spotted me on his way out for a comfort break, and smiled as he said :

“Screw the penalties, let’s go to the pub.”

It was the line of the night.

So, the penalties at our end this time. Everyone stood. I varied my approach as I photographed each one.

Iniesta – Barcelona, goal – a photo of the TV screen behind me : 0-1.

Falcao – Chelsea, goal – a photo of the TV screen at the other end : 1-1.

Halilovic – Barcelona, miss – a photo of the TV screen at the other end : 1-1.

Moses – Chelsea, goal – a photo of him through the crowd : 2-1.

Pique – Barcelona, miss – a photo of the TV screen behind me : 2-1.

Ramires – Chelsea, goal – a photo of the TV screen at the other end : 3-1.

Sandro – Barcelona, goal – a photo of him through the crowd : 3-2.

Remy – Chelsea, goal – a photo of him through the crowd : 4-2.

We roared. Winning a friendly had never been this important.

Fantastic.

As Gill and Graeme, a few rows in front, almost exploded with joy, I too was pumped. My pleasure almost surprised me.

Only a friendly, right?

The post-match celebrations and presentations were over remarkably quickly. Thibaut was handed the man of the match trophy – a pint of Guinness and a packet of pork scratchings – and gave a rather embarrassed “thumbs up” to the camera.

The FCB fans had sloped off. I looked around to see if I could see some friends. Everyone was disappearing into the night, keen to leave by train and car.

Outside, I said my fond farewells to Roma, Vanessa and Shawn.

I slowly walked past the slowly-exiting cars, teetering down the shallow slope of the exit road. There seemed to be more Chelsea fans on the walk back to a local train station than I had expected. Maybe the Barcelona fans really had left quickly. At the station, a wait for a ticket, then a wait to board the train. The crowds reminded me of Munich. At least these ones were air-conditioned. I found myself talking to a Chelsea fan on the train, thus missing my stop. I alighted at the next one, which was conveniently located opposite “Four Courts” and unwittingly extended the night.

Here were all the usual suspects again, plus a couple of Chelsea fans from Toronto – Leigh-Anne and John – who had been hoping to see me all day. That I should bump into them in the last few seconds of the day – after extra-time and penalties if you like – was just perfect.

More beers, more photos, more laughs.

And then sadly, a few goodbyes.

A few of us popped next door for a kebab and one last beer.

Andy, Brad, Shaun, The Bobster, Leigh-Ann, John, little old me.

It was around 2am.

The last and final scene of this magnificent and memorable US Tour was being played out.

On Sunday, it’s back to England and back to London and back to Wembley.

And bloody Arsenal.

How boring.

IMG_1538

Tales From Tinsel Town.

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 24 May 2015.

This was it, then. The last game of the season. To be truthful, it was a game in name only. With the league already won, the day was all about one particular moment which would happen at around 5.15pm.

The sun glinting off the Premier League trophy as John Terry lifts it high above his shoulders.

In fact, there was a part of me that wanted to fast forward through the actual match in order to just reach that point. Sure, there would be friends to meet and memories of the season to share along the way, but I just wanted to see the trophy back in SW6.

Best not to wish my time away though. Surely it would be best to relax and enjoy the day as it unfolded before me. That was the plan.

However, it was perhaps inevitable in this most difficult of seasons for myself, what with the recent loss of my mother overshadowing almost everything, that even this most potentially joyous of all days should be tinged with sadness.

On Wednesday, we sadly learned that one of the Bristol group, Clive, had sadly passed away. Although Clive was not in my immediate circle of close Chelsea friends, he was one of the many acquaintances that I have enjoyed talking to over the years, whether it was in The Goose or at any home or away game. That Clive lived in Bristol, relatively close to me in the West Country, meant that there was an empathy with him. He was a fine man, a very loyal Chelsea supporter and, for the want of a better phrase, one of the undoubted “good guys.” He has featured in these tales over the years as one of the un-named members of “the Bristol boys” and, to be honest, his unexpected passing hit me for six. Although the Chelsea family has lost a few well known supporters of late, Clive was the only one that I can honestly say that I knew. That he passed away on 19 May is an irony that was not lost on any of his close Chelsea friends. In the packed beer garden of “The Goose”, I had a quiet few words – a difficult few words – with Clive’s sons Kelvin and Rich. We raised a glass to their father and to my mother.

I had travelled up from the West Country for the final league game of the season with Southern Parky and Northern Dean. At the Chelsea hotel, The Copthorne, we had joined forces with a few good friends from the United States – Kathryn and Tim from DC, Tom from Los Angeles – and had met a first time visitor to Stamford Bridge, Jim, also from the DC area, too. Jim was over with his son CJ, and was supremely happy that I had managed to sort out a spare match ticket for him. On the way to “The Goose” we had stopped off at a ridiculously quiet “Malt House” for a pint and a chat about all things Chelsea. In “The Goose” the atmosphere was predictably boisterous.  The beer garden was rammed. Burger, Julie and Andy, veterans of many a Chelsea US tour, joined the celebrations. It was lovely.

The sun was shining and the championship was ours.

The beer tasted even better than usual. It was perfect, just perfect.

Sadly, we left the pub just a little too late for my liking. There was a typical melee at the turnstiles and I sadly missed the pre game presentation to the crowd of several members of the 2004/2005 championship squad. Alan, who was in early, was able to tell me that even William Gallas, probably the only ex-Chelsea player of recent memory who has received a tough time during his subsequent outings against us, was on show.

I was absolutely elated to see Tom alongside Alan. Tom is in his late ‘seventies and his health has not been too good of late. His presence was one of the high points of the day.

I noted that everyone had been given blue card mosaics and a royal blue flag to hold and wave before the teams had entered the pitch. Sadly, that infamous Chelsea tradition of “one last pint” had backfired further. I had missed all of that too.

Balls.

And so to the game.

Ah, the game. Yet again, all of the various pre match chats had managed to avoid the game itself. The first big surprise was that Eden Hazard, rumoured to be out due to the lingering side-effects of a dental operation, was playing. We had learned that this would be Didier Drogba’s last ever game for us and he was playing from the start. Also in was Petr Cech; would this be his last game, too? The back line in front of Big Pete was the standard four of 2014/2015, but Jose Mourinho chose Jon Obi Mikel – maybe his last game too? – alongside Nemanja Matic. The attacking three were Hazard, Willian and Cuadrado.

The traditionalist in me was just happy that the men in suits had not decided for our players to jettison the current playing kit for next season’s. It is always a pet peeve of mine. Dare I mention Moscow?

With the Chelsea support in fine form, I soon texted Jim from DC to see how he was doing.

“I’m in heaven.”

With the sun shining – perfect “Chelsea weather” – we began well and Drogba almost touched home a low Cuadrado cross at the near post. The crowd were vibrant and the party was on.

“We want you to staaaaaay. Petr Cech, we want you to stay.”

Two pieces of action involved our rampaging full-back / winger / battering ram Ivanovic. Firstly he tumbled in the box after a challenge but a penalty was not given and then, with a shot mirroring a similar effort against a recent opponent at home, a blistering drive from distance.

Sadly, despite having the majority of the ball, we conceded on twenty-six minutes. A corner was played in to the box and the ball’s path seemed to confuse and bewilder our entire defence. The ball bounced up,  just missing John Terry’s desperate attempt to intercept, allowing Stephen Fletcher to nod the ball down and in past Cech. To say we were stunned would be an understatement. The Mackems in the opposite corner, relatively quiet until that point, roared after a tantalising split second of silence; I suspected that they could not believe it either.

Bollocks.

Next, came a moment of pure theatre. Mourinho signalled for Diego Costa to replace Didier Drogba. The crowd began applauding our hero of Munich – and of course of many other moments too – but then we became aware of something strange. We saw Cech race out of his box and join the rest of his team mates in hoisting Didier up and carrying him, in a blue-shirted chariot, off the pitch. None of us had witnessed anything like this before. It was partly corny, partly magnificent. Didier turned, waved a palm to the stands, then took off his shirt once his chariot ride had finished. An embrace with Diego and Jose and his Chelsea career was over. I am still in two minds about his return to us, but here was a send off fit for a king. I have pictures of his last seconds as a Chelsea player on the Stamford Bridge pitch in 2012.

The pictures from 2015 seem more appropriate.

“Thanks Didier. You take care mate.”

Just after, Cuadrado tempted John O’Shea to lunge as he offered the ball as a prize. The lunge was ill-timed and the referee Lee Mason was left with no option. A penalty.

Diego Costa calmly stroked the ball in.

Unlike in 2005/2006 when our league campaign, after the title-clincher versus Manchester United, ended with two limp defeats, I was convinced that the 0-3 reverse at The Hawthorns would not be followed with another defeat here. We had, after all, another undefeated home record to defend. And there have been a few.

Sadly Cuadrado, enjoying his best game for us – “not hard” I hear you say – was injured and replaced by Loic Remy just before the break.

At the break, there was an air of disbelief around me when we heard that Stoke City were pummelling Liverpool 5-0. Oh dear, Stephen Gerrard, what a shame,  never mind.

We began the second half well, with Remy looking interested. A rare shot from Gary Cahill took us all by surprise. Willian went close too. Then, forty yards out, Hazard turned on a sixpence and ran in that unfettered way of his at Larsson. He gained a few yards and then played in Remy. The ball was moved sideways, then struck firmly. The shot was not particularly hard, but there was enough on it to evade Vito Mannone. I caught this third goal of the game on film too. The crowd roared again.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at wor now like.”

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

With a win now looking more likely, the crowd toasted Chelsea legends past and present. There was also a wave from the bashful owner in the middle tiers of the West Stand.

We heard that Newcastle United had managed to win and so their presence in the top flight would be assured for another season. Newcastle fans have their detractors ( I wonder what they make of Alan Pardew’s fine spell at Crystal Palace) but the Premier League is not the same without them.

Andreas Christensen replaced Mikel. We were coasting now and a bright line of stewards began to line the pitch as the seconds ticked away. We sealed the win when Remy appeared unmarked at the near post to delicately touch home a low cross from Matic. Another goal – the last of the season – on film, captured for posterity.

At the final whistle, hugs from the players.

Another win.

Job done.

The players returned to the sanctuary of the dressing rooms, and we waited. It seemed to take an eternity to construct the special stage on which the trophy was to be presented. Lucky me; not only would this be at our end of the stadium, unlike in 2005, but the players would be facing my way too. My memory card was full, so I spent a few moments deleting some unworthy photographs.

A fair proportion of the Sunderland fans, to their credit, stayed on to watch the post-game pageantry. With their safety assured only within the past week, perhaps they looked on and took some sort of vicarious pleasure in our superbly choreographed celebrations. In the very first few moments of the match, the away supporters in the lower tier had tossed around – if that is the correct phrase in the circumstances – an inflatable penis.  I couldn’t tell if an image of Mike Ashley’s face was added for good measure.

The wives and girlfriends walked on to a strange fenced-off area on the pitch in front of the West Lower. This gave Alan an easy laugh :

“That’s the John Terry area…”want, want, got, got, want, want, want, got…”

The minutes ticked by but eventually the stage was set. With Neil Barnett at the helm, players were announced, and cheers rang out. Although the Barclay’s corporate colour, and that of the stage and assorted props, is of a lighter blue than we normally see at Stamford Bridge, I was not too concerned.

I was hoping for a splash of red in the procedings, though. The presence of a smattering of Chelsea Pensioner scarlet always adds a sense of history and perspective to these occasions at Chelsea. Alas, the Royal Hospital was not represented.

As Jose Mourinho walked towards the platform, he looked towards Roman Abramovich and gave him a prolonged “thumbs up”and an extra wave.

“Thanks for having me back. Waitrose eggs never tasted better.”

There were extra-special cheers for Cech, Fabregas, Hazard, Drogba and Terry. Our captain, of course, was the last in line.

We waited.

With everything set, with the cameras poised, with 40,000 sets of eyes inside the stadium centered on the huge chunk of silver, with millions watching worldwide, with Kathryn, Tim, Andy and Jim watching too, our captain hoisted the 2014/2015 Barclay’s Premier League trophy high.

From above, royal blue and white tinsel cascaded down. There was tinsel in 2005, in 2006, in 2010 and at all of our Wembley cup wins too. It seems that where ever we go these days, blue and white tinsel is not too far away. Long may it continue. Great plumes of orange flame fired into the air from in front of the East Lower. Everywhere there were smiles. Soon, the players reassembled together for obligatory team photographs.

Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap.

And then, Neil Barnett spoke :

“Didier wants a word.”

The crowd hushed as Didier took the microphone.

“I don’t really know what to say…”

He spoke for a minute or so, about his two spells at the club, his thanks to Jose Mourinho, his love of his team mates and of us, the fans. There was also a kind and thoughtful word for Frank Lampard too. It was classy stuff.

I watched, with Dave, Alan, Gary and Tom, as the players walked past us. Their children accompanied them. I took special care in photographing John Terry and Didier Drogba with the trophy. Petr Cech too. Will we see him again in Chelsea orange or yellow or white? Probably not.

The players headed off to The Shed where Parky and others were dutifully waiting. It was a familiar scene this; for the fourth time in my life, the fourth time in eleven seasons, we were parading the championship trophy at The Bridge.

And yet, if I am honest, I was finding it difficult to fully embrace this particular triumph. This has been a tough period of my life. February was the toughest month of all. A lot of my focus over the past three months has been on other far more important matters. The football has been a backdrop to my life rather than the centrepoint. To be blunt, this championship season, running from Burnley in August – game one thousand – through the autumn and in to winter, then out the other side into spring, has been increasingly difficult for me to relate to. If it matters, this one has been the least enjoyable of the four championships that we have won in these past ten years. Yet I am sure that this is no surprise to any. Losing my mother in February has overshadowed everything this season.

But I am sure that I will come back stronger next season. I am already looking forward to a full pre-season in the US in July. There are games in New Jersey, in North Carolina, in DC. It will be the perfect start to a new campaign, with maybe slightly a different focus this time around. I am so looking forward to seeing some good – no, great – friends in all three American cities. I am also looking forward to reminding American fans that there is no real need to wear Chelsea scarves in ninety degree heat in the summer, nor is there any need to refer to Chelsea as “Chels” every five fucking seconds. It will be a great trip. Then there is the Community Shield at Wembley and a home friendly with Fiorentina. By the time of the opening league game of the season, I should already have five games behind me. This season, my mark was just forty-two games. From a high of fifty-eight in 2011/2012, this is a rather low total. Our early dismissals in two cup competitions clearly did not help. By the way, if it matters, our brief foray in the Champions League gave me my most treasured memory this season; drinking Morangoska cocktails in the packed side streets of Lisbon on a magical Monday night alongside some dear friends was truly magnificent, as was, in fact, the entire three days in that historic and charming city.

What of the future, then?

We are in a very strong position here. We have the best manager in England. We have an interested and involved chairman. We have a top-notch academy. We have a great youth team. We are Youth Cup winners again. We will strengthen the squad further in the summer. We seem to be keen to redevelop our Stamford Bridge stadium rather than move to a soul-less stadium elsewhere.

All is good.

What could possibly go wrong?

In closing my reports for 2014/2015, a few words of thanks to our players for keeping the desire to win throughout the season and, of course, thanks to many fantastic mates for supporting me through my dark days.

Thanks also for the support for CHELSEA/esque too.

It is appreciated.

See you in New Jersey.

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Tales From The Sloaney Pony.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 28 October 2012.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

Four words to get the pulses racing.

After our two marvellous wins at Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, I was relishing this one – of course – and was fearless, despite our poor performance in Donetsk on Tuesday.

Sunday couldn’t come quick enough. Saturday was a blur.

Overnight, winter had arrived. The clocks went back an hour and the temperature had dropped. Despite the potential luxury of an extra hour in bed, I was up and at’em on Sunday morning.

There is always something special about going to football in October, with the trees changing colours and the first breath of winter giving the air a chill. In fact, it caught me unawares. Like a rabbit caught in the headlights, I stood in my bedroom for a good ten minutes, befuddled and confused, trying to work out the best combination of shirt/pullover/top/jacket to wear for the first cold trip of the season. I eventually chose a white polo shirt. I then pinned my Remembrance Day poppy on a navy blue pullover and I was away.

I collected Young Jake in Trowbridge, Wiltshire’s county town, at 11am and we headed north to the M4 and then east to Chelsea Town.

This would be Jake’s first sighting of Manchester United and he was clearly “buzzing.” Due to Chelsea’s liking of Second Division football in the days of my childhood and youth, my first sighting of the famous red shirts took place as late as December 1984, when I was halfway through my nineteenth year. In fact, from the day of my first ever Chelsea game in 1974, the two teams’ paths only crossed on two occasions in the league at Stamford Bridge until that fateful day ten years later. In the first of these ten seasons, 1974-1975, Manchester United found themselves in Division Two while we were toiling in the top flight. In the next two seasons, it was our turn to play in the second tier. In 1977-1978 and 1978-1979, our paths crossed momentarily. Then from 1979 to 1984, Chelsea were back amongst the dead men of the Second Division.

In December 1984, I joined a season-high attendance of 42,000 who assembled on a cold post-Christmas afternoon and watched aghast as United romped to a 3-1 win. This was standard for many years; for ages, Chelsea did well at Old Trafford and United won the spoils at Stamford Bridge. From around 1967 to 1987, we were undefeated at Old Trafford. United’s ascendency over us at HQ only really lilted in 2002, after years of domination. I can still taste the bitterness of those 3-2, 4-1 and 3-0 defeats in 1994, 1995 and 2002, to say nothing of the 5-3 F.A. Cup defeat in 1998 and the Champions League loss in 2011.

However, over the past ten seasons, we have been undefeated against United at Stamford Bridge in the league. I chatted about some of these games with Jake as the rain started to increase. There have been some crackers; the undoubted highlight being the 3-0 championship decider in 2006. Thank you William Gallas, thank you Ricardo Carvalho and thank you Joe Cole. You wait fifty years for a league championship and then two come together. Superb stuff.

Of course, the best ever memory was from that incredible day in the autumn of 1999 when a rampant Chelsea defeated the treble winners 5-0. What a magnificent performance under the tutelage of Gianluca Vialli. There have been few more pleasurable afternoons in deepest SW6. Bloody hell, even Chris Sutton scored that day. Remember him?

No, I thought not.

At Reading Services, I spotted a chap wearing a New England Patriots shirt and my hackles rose. He was off to Wembley for the annual NFL game. I only heard about this match on the Saturday; the media has been strangely muted about this year’s encounter. I noted that the London Saracens rugby union team played a regular league game in Brussels last weekend. Where will it all end?

I know where it will end.

Chelsea playing a regular season game against Norwich City in Shanghai.

By which time, this particular Chelsea fan will have taken a damn good look at the way football has gone and may well have decided to hang up his boots. I’m fine with watching friendlies in the US and Asia, I’m fine with World Club Championships in Japan, but the regular season is sacrosanct.

Mess with that, dear Football Association, and you might well have lost me, and millions like me.

We rolled into London, the rain thankfully halted, at 1.30pm. Jake sought refuge in The Goose, but I headed down the North End Road and the Fulham Road to Parson’s Green, where I had arranged to meet up with Mike from the NYBs. On my way, I dipped into a betting shop and put a tenner on us to win 5-0.

It has happened before, it could happen again.

I dreamt of a £1,500 treasure chest.

I walked past the site of the former George pub and was dismayed to see that it now houses an estate agent. The George used to house the CFC Yeovil branch on match days back in the mid-’eighties and a few of us from Frome used to spend many an hour with them. Good people. I hardly see any of them these days. I only commented recently that the total of seven regular Chelsea attendees from Frome, all season ticket holders, has withered to just myself.

I walked past Fulham police station just as “Goggles” – one of the local policemen who are always present at Chelsea games, from London to Birmingham to Turin to Donetsk – left the building with four others. The wind was chilling the air, but my warm jacket was doing its job.

The White Horse pub, right on the northern edge of Parson’s Green, is a famous old Chelsea watering hole. I haven’t frequented it for years and years – 1995 to be exact – but it’s a lovely pub. As it is just off the King’s Road, it has always attracted a certain type of clientele. Back in the early ‘eighties, social commentator Peter York dubbed the pretty young things who live in Kensington & Chelsea “Sloane Rangers.” In Chelsea football circles, the White Horse was always called “The Sloaney Pony.” I spent a nice time there, supping my usual one pint of lager; this time it was a crisp Budvar. Mike was giddy with enthusiasm at the thought of seeing the team play once more. His last game was in Miami. I met up with a couple of his UK-based mates and we had a good laugh. Mutual friends were referenced and humorous stories were told. Yet again, the up-coming game was ignored. We spoke, instead, about trips to Munich and Barcelona, the summer tour and Japan.

Stamford Bridge is only a ten minute walk away, past Eelbrook Common and the Pelican pub. I was soon on Fulham Road, outside the West Stand, where a Chelsea brass band was playing “Land Of Hope And Glory”, “Amarillo” and “Blue Is The Colour.” I lost count of the number of tourists I saw with Chelsea / United scarves.

I was in the stadium early. It was too early, in fact. It was 3.30pm. I didn’t know what to do.

The stadium, as always, took a while to reach capacity and I suddenly realised that there were no pre-match songs emanating from stands like in days of old. This is another match day tradition which has slowly died out since the end of the terracing. I remember the days when…oh never mind.

The Chelsea team was unsurprisingly unaltered from the fine win at White Hart Lane. United’s defence interested me; surely we could attack them in the middle, to exploit the pairing of Ferdinand and Evans. Further upfront, Rooney and Van Persie worried me. But this was a game that we could win and win well.

5-0 will be fine, please.

After Neil Barnett had announced the teams, in that rather loud and irritating way of his, he called for silence. Both sets of fans were asked to acknowledge the life of former Manchester United and England winger John Connelly, who had recently passed away.

A short but steady period of applause resounded around the stadium.

United had their usual three thousand and the lower tier, at least, stood the entire game. The home areas eventually were filled to capacity. I tried to spot any empty seats and it was difficult. We were treated to a bona fide full house at last. Maybe we’re getting too used to sight of United and too used to the big games, but the pre-match buzz was sadly lacking inside the stadium. I felt it outside, in the pubs and in the streets, but inside, there was a strange quietness.

The teams entered the pitch. The United contingent had begun singing with a few minutes to go, but we drowned them out. The place was suddenly rocking.

“We know what we are.
Champions of Europe.
We know what we are.”

There were the expected venomous catcalls from the home stands aimed at Rio Ferdinand as the match began, though thankfully none of a racist nature. I’m personally getting bored with it all and it’s time to move on.

Well, what a game. After last season’s rollercoaster 3-3 draw, who could have thought that we could be in for another tumultuous ninety minutes of drama and intrigue, goals and calamity, ecstasy and misery?

After just three minutes, United had struck down our left flank, with Ashley Cole horribly out of position. The arch predator Van Persie struck a shot against Petr Cech’s near post and the ball cannoned in off a hapless David Luiz. And my £1,500 bounty had been blown to smithereens. I gazed skywards, sighed and then muttered something to myself which probably mirrored 95% of what the Chelsea crowd had been singing at Rio Ferdinand.

Soon after, Ferdinand walked over towards us in the north-west corner to receive a ball from David De Gea. The boos cascaded down on him. However, nobody closed him down and he had time to initiate a move down the United left which again caught Cole woefully out of position. The ball cut through our defence like a hot knife through butter. A low cross, a Van Persie shot.

2-0 to United and the game had hardly started.

I looked on as I saw Ferdinand punch the air.

A horrible feeling.

Midway through the first-half, with Chelsea seemingly chasing shadows, Alan leaned over and summed it up.

“They’re better than us. No point disguising the fact. We’re not in it.”

I had to agree.

Every time United broke, we were sent into a tense period of panic. Although Andrei Kanchelskis, Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs were not playing, this was so reminiscent of the rapid thrusts of the United team from the mid-‘nineties. Alan then made another telling point.

“Our wide men in midfield aren’t providing extra cover on the flanks.”

I had visions of more United goals. It was so imperative that we nabbed a goal before the break, or else I could see United running away with the game in the second-half.

The away fans were bellowing – that bloody awful Cantona song always annoys me – as United punched deep into our defence and we were reeling on the ropes. And then, miraculously, we found our feet and retaliated. I had commented to Alan that “we haven’t even had a corner.”

With that, the rest of the first-half was Chelsea corner after Chelsea corner.

They must have heard me.

De Gea was tested with a dipping and swerving Luiz free-kick, which the ‘keeper chose to save with his feet as he scrambled across his goal. This then set the tone for the rest of the half. De Gea’s goal lived a charmed life as headers from Cahill and then Torres were saved. We kept pushing and the crowd responded. This was more like it.

Just before the break, we were awarded a free-kick. Every outfield United player crowded into the penalty area, forming a formidable barrier to Juan Mata. I clicked my camera just as the little Spaniard clipped the ball past the tight huddle of intertwined red and blue shirts and into the goal.

It was an inch-perfect strike and the ball caressed the side netting as it entered the waiting goalmouth.

Stamford Bridge shook as the 38,000 home supporters roared.

Phew. We had scored that all important goal before the break.

Game most definitely on.

At the break, Neil Barnett appeared by the tunnel with a little girl and he announced that she was watching her first-ever Chelsea game. Her face appeared on the large TV screen above the United fans just as Neil told the story of her father scoring at Old Trafford in 1996. I quickly computed that little Amelia’s father was none other than Gianluca Vialli. As Luca was seen nut-megging the United ‘keeper, the memories flooded back. I am sure this was Luca’s first official return to the Chelsea fold since he was unceremoniously sacked in September 2000, though he is a season ticket-holder to this day.

He remains one of my very favourite Chelsea heroes.

The Juventus background, the cheeky smile, the cashmere cardigans, the self-effacing humour, the hilarious use of cockney phraseology, the goals and the glory.

A proper gentleman, a lovely man, a funny guy, a true Chelsea legend.

Ah, we loved Vialli.

One memory always brings a smile to my face to this day. After a game at Nottingham Forest in 1999, my then girlfriend Judy – who had a massive crush on Luca – and I waited for the players to board the team coach in the Forest car park. I took a few photos of the players as they were being mobbed by the crowd, but I then realised that Judy was missing. After a few moments, I looked up to see her standing right next to Luca by the door to the coach. She had simply sidled up alongside him and had held his left hand for a few seconds as he signed autographs with his right hand. He then realised what was going on and gave Judy a smile, and then signed her hand.

Judy bounced over to show me, her face beaming.

She didn’t wash her hand for a week.

The United players were first to appear back on the pitch after the break. I wondered what extra words of encouragement Di Matteo was imparting to the team. Di Matteo is from the same stock as Luca; calm, modest and a gentleman. I struggle to think he gets overly irate about anything. This was a big test for him, though. We waited for the Chelsea eleven to reappear.

The second-half was a travesty.

We began with gusto, as we attempted to prise gaps in the United defence. After some sustained Chelsea pressure, the impressive Oscar clipped the ball in to the six yard box where a seemingly unmarked Ramires was able to head the ball home.

He doesn’t score many, but when he does…

Now the stadium almost went into orbit.

The United fans fell silent as the Chelsea legions bellowed –

“You are my Chelsea.
My only Chelsea.
You make me happy when skies are grey.
You’ll never notice how much I love you.
Until you’ve taken my Chelsea away.
LA LA LA LA LA
LA LA LA LA LA
OH OH OH OH OH
OH OH OH OH
OH OH OH OH OH
OH OH OH OH
Until you’ve taken my Chelsea away.”

Stamford Bridge was the loudest it had been since that date with Barcelona last spring.

But then, just as we were in the ascendency, smelling blood, our game plan was forced to change. A quick United break, Ashley Young through on goal, with Ivanovic giving chase. Within a blink of an eye, a tangle of legs and Young was sent sprawling.

It was a clear red, even allowing for David Luiz in the vicinity. It was unlikely that Luiz would have covered.

Damn it.

Chicarito, who scored against us at home last season, came on for United. Di Matteo brought on Azpilicueta.

It got worse.

Fernando Torres, who was tending to hold the ball a little too long for my liking, set off on a run deep at the heart of the floundering United defence. I didn’t think that he would be able to get past the defenders, so it was with relief when Evans hacked him down. I then wondered if Evans had been booked (he hadn’t) and if the referee would send him off for the second offence.

Imagine our horror when Clattenburg decided that it had been a dive from Torres. This was a second yellow and so, Torres was given his marching orders. Torres looked heartbroken. I was speechless. The United fans gleefully waved him off the pitch. After last season’s miss at Old Trafford, I really felt for him. He acts as a totem of all that is wrong about Chelsea in the eyes of many opposing fans.

We were down to nine men with twenty minutes to play.

With the crowd galvanised against Clattenburg and the opposition alike, the noise levels stayed high and the atmosphere was certainly intense. However, United soon seized their chance to strike. Van Persie wiggled one way and then the other before striking low at Cech’s goal. The ball squirmed away from his grasp and spun slowly towards a post. No United players were on hand to poke it home but the ball was knocked back into the crowded box by Raphael. Chicarito – it had to be him – prodded the ball in after coming back from behind the goal line. Incoming texts suggested that he had been offside when he delivered the final coup de grace. However, the area was so crowded and the ball in was so quick, that it was not readily apparent in my eyes at the time.

With the odds heavily stacked against us, an equaliser seemed impossible. We never gave up the fight, though. Our nine men gamely searched for that illusive goal. A fine example of this was a scintillating run by the impressive Eden Hazard deep into the United box.

The game continued on with five minutes of extra time, but it wasn’t our day.

All around me, Chelsea fans were moaning about Clattenburg, but I really wanted to get home and watch the match highlights on TV before I made up my own mind.

By 10.45pm, I was moaning too.

There were defensive lapses during the game for sure. David Luiz can be world class and class clown in the same passage of play. Our defence misses John Terry. Against United, frailties will always be exposed. But we showed a lot of fight and courage in that middle third of the game. I saw promising signs. Against Arsenal, Tottenham and United we have gathered six points. Both United and us will be in the mix at the top end of the table come May.

And on Wednesday, we meet again.

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Tales From Sixth Place.

Fulham vs. Chelsea : 9 April 2012.

It was Easter Bank Holiday Monday 2012 and the Fulham versus Chelsea derby game was due up in the evening. Normally, I would try to do something of note during the day, but I awoke with an annoying headache and sore throat. As Parky had been rough with similar symptoms over the past week, I soon blamed him. Since 1979, my village has hosted an Easter Fair on every Bank Holiday Monday and I intended to spend a little time amongst the attractions. However, as the morning drew on, the weather deteriorated with an increasingly blustery wind and worsening showers. I saw a few visitors heading into the centre of the village; coats buttoned with hats and scarves to the fore. They didn’t seem to be enjoying the bracing wind or rain. However, I decided to brave the elements and strolled down, past children’s fair rides, food stalls, arts and crafts stands, hog roasts, bric-a-brac stalls and trade stands. I made it as far as the village shop and picked up a few items of food for lunch. I soon realised that my cold-like symptoms were getting worse. By the time I had returned home, my jacket was soaked.

Great.

The time soon passed and I reluctantly gathered my things together ahead of the drive to London. I will admit that there was a certain element of drudgery about all of this. I threw some headache tablets down my neck and battled the elements as I headed out to the car. As the centre of the village was closed off to vehicular access, I had to head out to the west rather than the east. What a dreary day. Heading past Faulkland, past the village green with the stocks, then past the Tucker’s Grave Inn (one of the last remaining scrumpy pubs in the area), the weather was truly awful; a lifeless sky and incessant rain.

I reached Parky Towers at just after 3pm. We were both coughing and spluttering in unison as I pulled out of his road. Parky and Jill had visited the village fair last Easter – when the weather was much more enticing – and so I soon chatted about my grim walk through the wet streets a few hours earlier.

“It was pretty pathetic mate. It wasn’t too bad for me I suppose, because I live in the village. But I have to wonder why people would want to travel over especially and traipse about in the rain…”

My voice trailed off. I soon realised what I was saying. I was mocking the people I had seen at the fair, but here we were, the two of us suffering with colds, about to drive 100 miles to watch a game of football.

I recognised the irony and chuckled to myself.

Why was I going to Craven Cottage? I guess the £49 ticket was burning a hole in my pocket…especially since we missed the game just after Christmas last year when we both felt ropey. There was some vague notion of “duty” to the team I suppose, but neither of us has to prove anything in our support of the boys. I suppose, the reason was straightforward; it’s what we do. I guess the question never really needs to be asked, let alone answered.

I pulled into Melksham for a coffee and I immediately felt chirpier. My mate Steve texted me to say that Frome Town (aka the Mighty Dodge) were drawing 0-0 down on the seaside in Weymouth, but the weather was cold and blustery there too. If truth be known, I was pretty dismayed that I was missing Frome’s game against the biggest club in their division.

As we headed east, we listened to the exploits of both Newcastle and Tottenham on the radio. We were both elated to hear of Spurs’ 2-1 loss and we were soon chattering about us finishing up in fourth place at the final whistle at Craven Cottage. On Friday, the gap was a massive five points. Later in the day, we could be level.

Easter weekend is a long time in football

Parky threw a Stiff Records compilation on the CD player as I headed into The Smoke. I especially enjoyed the thunder of “Destination Zulu Land” by King Kurt, a song I hadn’t heard for a good 25 years. As we zipped through the twee side streets of Barnes and Putney, songs from The Pogues, Tracey Ullman and The Belle Stars sent us down memory lane. We left Memory Lane and parked up just a few hundred yards from the River Thames. Good news from Weymouth; Steve texted me to say The Dodge won 3-0.

We strolled into “The Duke’s Head” bang on 6pm and settled down alongside the stalwarts Alan and Gary, plus Mike from NYC and his son Matthew. Within a short period of time, Matt from NYC joined us and then Jesus and his cousin Darlene; she had just flown in to London and the Fulham vs. Chelsea derby game would be her first ever footy game. They have tickets for the F.A. Cup semi-final on Sunday, too, and Jesus has been teaching her a few songs. The less said about those the better…wink. By the time of that game next Sunday, Jesus will have added Paris and Amsterdam to his list of European cities visited during the past three months.

Alan and Parky exchanged jokes and the Heineken was going down well. A few familiar Chelsea faces were spotted at the bar. Mike and I spoke about the massive game against Tottenham at Wembley, but we both expressed dismay and concern that our 31,500 tickets sold so poorly that during the last window for sales, both season ticket holders and members alike could buy an additional two tickets. This suggests to me that our fan base as a whole is not as “up for it” as it should be. Surely the Spurs’ followers will take up their 31,500 more readily. Worrying signs…

“Another pint, boys?”

I can well remember a conversation that a few of us had on the pavement outside this pub ahead of our game with Fulham in March 2006. This was, of course, during the closing stages of our second championship season under Jose Mourinho; there was a certain amount of pomp in the way that our club was perceived by the media at the time and we were seen as almost unbeatable domestically. Looking back, they were the very best of times. And yet, the five or six of us on that Sunday lunchtime were far from happy; we had noticed chinks in our armour and were not completely happy in the way that we were playing of late. Question marks were raised about manager and players alike. The fact that we lost the game 1-0 added a little gravitas to our typically pessimistic appraisal of the team six years ago.

Why do I mention this? It just proves that football fans, in general, are never happy. We were soon to be crowned English champions for the second successive season, but there was still room for improvement in our collective minds.

We left the boozer at 7.15pm and wrapped ourselves up against the cold before walking over the exposed Putney Bridge, with the bright lights of Craven Cottage shining like beacons to our west. We hurriedly walked through the park which abuts the river and were soon outside the red brick turnstiles of the Putney End. The others entered the away end, but I spent a few moments taking a few photographs of the relatively new Johnny Haynes statue. However, the rain was falling and the light was poor. The photos weren’t great. I didn’t even bother looking for the allegedly hideous Michael Jackson statue. True Fulham fans must hate the presence of it outside the Johnny Haynes stand.

I wouldn’t mind a Raquel Welch statue outside The Shed though; it would be, at least, somewhere to shelter in the rain.

Underneath the away stand, I soon stumbled into Darlene, Parky and Jesus supping “one last pint.” Craven Cottage is a lovely stadium – one of my favourites. Its setting is unique. I love the façade of the main stand. Top marks. However, it does contain the infamous “neutral area” alongside the 3,000 seats officially allotted to away fans in the Putney End. Once inside the seats, I soon realised that my seat – on the aisle – was right on the boundary between the “away” and “neutral” zones. I chatted to Alan about this; if truly neutral, one wonders if it would be appropriate to encounter Liverpool, Leicester City, Leeds United and Lincoln City shirts amongst the neutrals. It is truly a weird concept. I quickly spotted a few Chelsea shirts and scarves in this area, but also some Fulham ones.

Bizarre.

It was noticeable that the 3,000 away fans stood for the entire game and provided some of the most vocal singing of the season so far. In contrast, the 3,500 fans in the neutral zone remained seated throughout and did not utter a single word of song during the evening’s entertainment. The home fans were pretty docile, too. However, I scanned the stadium and there were hardly any empty seats. The teams walked across the pitch.

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I caught a glimpse of some white signs being held up by a section of home fans in the Hammersmith End and I groaned; I suspected that these doubled as the equally infamous “Fulham noise-makers / clappers / thundersticks” (also spotted at Wembley amongst the plebs at England games.)

The future of football? Heave.

I’m not really sure why Fulham have disregarded their black shorts; I have a passing dislike for teams who meddle with their kit design.

The game began and we were soon singing –

“Six days till Tottenham, there’s only six days till Tottenham – six days till Tottenham.”

“We don’t hate you, we don’t hate you, we don’t hate you – ‘cus you’re s***.”

“You can stick your fucking clappers up your arse.”

“Who the fuck are Barcelona, who the fuck are Barcelona, who the fuck are Barcelona? As the Blues go marching on, on, on.”

It was a cold and wet night by the banks of The Thames.The game wasn’t great at all, though we kept singing all of the way through. Ryan Bertrand pleased my eye throughout the game and he has fared well over the past two games. Gary Cahill created a strong barrier alongside John Terry. Ivanovic was his usual self. The problems came in the attacking positions really. We all said that Ramires is best used when he wins the ball centrally and drives on. He is not so effective when he receives the ball wide and then has to create for others. Lampard covered ground but wasn’t the driving force of old. Up top, Torres was quiet, Kalou also.

Clint Dempsey had a few strong chances in the first-half, but Petr Cech kept him at bay. I like the look of the buzzing winger Frei . Damien Duff, as always these days, flattered to deceive.

The foul on Kalou which lead to the penalty took place, of course, up the other end and so my sighting was not great. Frank struck the ball low and it just evaded Schwarzer’s dive. Phew.

In the first ten minutes of the second period, we enjoyed three or four gilt-edged chances to increase our lead but the chances went begging. I can still see the look of pain on Fernando Torres’ face after his neat lay-off for Meireles resulted in a wild blast over. Slowly, our play deteriorated and Fulham began to bother Petr Cech. A few half-chances peppered our goal. A stunning point-blank save from Petr was met with tumultuous applause from the standing loyalists in the Putney End. From the resulting corner, though, our hearts were broken when Clint Dempsey – yes, him – rose to head home.

In the last cameo of the night, we broke forward but Frank Lampard stumbled after a tackle inside the box. The referee Mark Clattenburg blew the final whistle, leaving a frustrated Lampard sitting on the pitch, bemused.

We scuttled back to the car and were soon away. There was little to bring us any cheer to be honest. Another evening, another game, another night of song. Our chance to leapfrog ahead of Tottenham had been missed – and with it, a timely boost ahead of the cup semi-final. Still, Fulham away is never an easy game these days. We still have a shot at fourth place, but we will see.

We returned to the Stiff Records compilation as I took the reverse route out of south-west London. I drove right past the spot where T-Rex lead singer Marc Bolan met his untimely death in 1977. All those years ago, his mini slammed into a tree-trunk and I noted that it was festooned with pictures and mementos of the iconic singer, whose “Children Of The Revolution” is one of my favourite songs of my very early childhood.

As I headed home, Parky soon fell asleep and I soon realised that my sore throat had returned; looking back this was hardly surprising since I had unthinkingly joined in at every opportunity to bellow support for the boys.

Let’s hope that all 31,500 of us have equally sore throats next Sunday evening.

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Tales From The Caffeine Express.

Bolton Wanderers vs. Chelsea : 2 October 2011.

This was a long and tiring excursion into deepest Lancashire, but yet another hugely enjoyable day following the boys in royal blue. With victories for both Manchester clubs on a sun-drenched Saturday, it was imperative that we stayed in touch with then by winning at The Reebok. Historically, Bolton Wanderers are a tough old team, but our record at Bolton’s stadium is almost perfect, with a series of highly convincing victories and not a single defeat. As I left my slumbering Somerset village at 7.45am, I was confident of a positive outcome.

I sipped at a coffee as I drove through the Somerset lanes and then headed through the winding and narrow streets of the Wiltshire town of Bradford-On-Avon. My mates Alan and Gary were already heading north on one of the official Chelsea coaches from London. I wondered how many we would take up to Bolton. It’s always a concern that our club isn’t embarrassed by a smaller than expected away following. As the coffee hit the spot, I became more and more tuned-in to the delights of the day ahead. However, my early progress was temporarily halted by some Sunday cyclists and a Land Rover pulling a horse box. I eventually collected Parky at 8.15am and then retraced my tracks, heading west and then north up past Bath and onto the M4. We were expecting another blisteringly hot day and the early morning sun was burning up the mist in the valley where Bath was nestled. Above, several hot air balloons were clearly visible in the pristine blue sky.

What a great feeling. A day of football and a day of Chelsea. Can’t beat it.

As these Chelsea trips north come and go, as these sorties up the M5 and the M6 follow on relentlessly after each other, I was well aware of how desperate I am for fresh fields and fresh destinations in order for new routes and experiences to befall me. Thank heavens for the much-anticipated jaunts to Swansea and Norwich this season. If these away day match reports start to feel eerily familiar, it only goes to illustrate the relentless nature of following football 24/7. However, I’ll never tire of an away game at Bolton. It will always be a special place in my heart. Need I mention April 30th. 2005?

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I refuelled at Strensham services and we then had a grotty Burger King coffee at Stafford services. As I travel around the motorway network, I have developed a nerdish knowledge of service stations and it’s not something I am proud of.

“There are always long lines at the Costa Coffee at Strensham, no breakfast menu at Burger King at Frankley, there’s an M&S at Keele. No KFC until Knutsford”

In order to save ourselves some money, Parky and I have started taking our own food for these away trips around England; with ticket prices higher than ever, it’s one way we can attempt to save some money in order to keep going to football. Over the course of a whole season, it will hopefully save us some money for a few more tickets.

As we headed north, the sky grew greyer and clouds became thicker. This was pretty surprising as the weather down south on Saturday had been magnificent. By the time we were headed over the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal at Thelwell, the weather had deteriorated further. I know I have mentioned this many times before, but the view atop this bridge is one of my favourite football vistas. To the west, the Runcorn Bridge and the city of Liverpool and its twin clubs, to the east, the skyscrapers of central Manchester and United and City, with the moors beyond. And due north, Winter Hill and The Reebok (though out of sight) nestling below it. However, not on this day; the overcast weather meant that Winter Hill was not visible. I was making great time and before I knew it, I was heading east on the M62 and Bolton was just 16 miles away.

We veered off the Manchester orbital and then headed north on the M61. It is always a surprise for me how far out – and isolated – The Reebok Stadium is from Bolton city centre. It is located off the motorway at Horwich, adjacent a large shopping and entertainment complex. The rain was spitting as I headed east, with the floodlight pylons and roof supports of the stadium visible in the autumn sky ahead.

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The sight of this most unique stadium always brings a smile to my soul.

Four hours – to the dot – since setting off in the waking Somerset morning, I was parked up in the drizzle of a Lancashire stadium car park.

It’s grim up north.

Alan and Gary had just arrived and we joined them by the entrance to the main reception area, in preparation of the arrival of the Chelsea coach. Within five minutes, I had taken a few up-close-and-personal photographs of Petr Cech, Frank Lampard, Raul Meireles and Nicolas Anelka, though only two photos proved to be worthy of keeping. I managed to get a nice one of Frank, just after he had signed a few programmes and had had his photo taken with an eager fan. Amongst the throng of Chelsea fans, I noted a few northern voices. Parky was keen to head inside for a beer, but I fancied a mooch around the adjacent retail park. I didn’t fancy any beers as I had a long trip home. I needed to keep my head fresh. Parky’s ticket was for the lower tier, so I swapped my ticket for his; this enabled His Lordship to partake in a few pre-match bevvies with Alan and Gary in the Upper Tier bars.

As I slowly walked around the outside of the stadium, I spotted several slogans declaring “Bolton Central – Everything Wanderers” and this is typical of recent branding exercises at clubs these days. At Everton, there are signs declaring itself “The Peoples’ Club” and there are of course “Our City” signs everywhere at Eastlands.

I made a bee-line for the “Hurleys” shop, just a hundred yards or so away. I bought a pair of Henri Lloyd jeans there on my last visit and I spent a good few minutes examining the gear on show. The first “Hurleys” began in Manchester ages ago and there are a few dotted around the north-west. It’s a well-known mecca for football gear and I wasn’t disappointed; I flicked through a few rails of Lacoste, Fred Perry, Boss, Paul & Shark and Henri Lloyd. There were also a few items of Pretty Green, the label which Oasis front man Liam Gallagher has developed recently. Lots of shirts with button-down collars, lots of check patterned shirts, lots of polos, lots of heavy pullovers. I seriously considered getting a royal blue Paul & Shark polo – but the price tag was a hefty ₤75 and I had to seriously consider it. I headed opposite and had coffee number three of the day at a local “Starbucks.” After fifteen minutes, I had dismissed the idea and was annoyed with myself for even considering such a crazy notion.

What I want – of course – is a Bolton away game to coincide with the January sales. Can we play them away in the FA Cup in 2012 please?

Time was moving on now and I retraced my steps back around to the away entrance. I had a chat with a few familiar faces and was soon inside. Parky’s ticket was perfect; centrally located behind the goal and next to an aisle. I took a few photographs of the team doing their pre-match drills and noted plenty of smiles and laughter. A few shots on Petr Cech then followed. I had to laugh when David Luiz took a couple of shots but looked away right at the last minute. Typically Brazilan, eh? I think I saw Ronaldinho do this during an actual match once – and score. Heaven knows what would happen if I had ever attempted that.

By this time, the team had been announced and I was abuzz with news that Frank Lampard had been picked. I focussed on him with my camera and he did look energised.

Amidst a flurry of texts just before the kick-off at 1.30pm, I sent a simple message to a few friends which simply said –

“Frank Loves The Reebok.”

I had an inkling that this would be a game where Frank would shine; such is his record at The Reebok.

It seemed that the entire Chelsea contingent had similar thoughts as we serenaded our beloved number eight with a hearty rendition of “Super Frank” at the kick-off. Bolton had a quick attempt on our goal, but a lovely ball from an advancing David Luiz inside the left back found a rampaging Jose Bosingwa. I was right behind the path of that ball; it was a joy to watch. A cross from Bosingwa was turned behind for a corner and, from the centre, none other than Daniel Sturridge headed down and in to the Bolton goal.

And this was after just a couple of minutes.

The Chelsea end roared.

Alan, up above me in the upper tier texted me –

“THTCAUN.”

And I quickly replied –

“COMLD.”

We were in great voice at the start of the game (indeed, for quite a while before, too) and this opening goal gave us more reason to bellow our support of the team.

In the early part of the game, David Luiz had tons of space in which to roam and play balls through to various team mates. Daniel Sturridge, buzzing from his first goal back at Bolton after his loan spell, was playing with great spirit on the right and his great ball found Frank on seventeen minutes. Frank easily despatched the ball into the Bolton goal and how we celebrated.

I repeated the text I had sent at 1.26pm –

“Frank Loves The Reebok.”

On 25 minutes, Studge found himself wide on the right once again. I was wondering if the Bolton left-back had gone shopping in the retail park, such was his continued absence on the pitch. Maybe he was sat in “Starbucks”, mulling over a purchase. Studge whipped in a quick shot which beat the flailing dive of the cerise-shirted Bogdan and the net rippled.

3-0 to Chelsea. Phew.

I had struck up a conversation with the chap behind me about how I hoped that Bolton would stay up this season. Again, the memories of 2005 are the main reason for this. I always remember going back to The Reebok in April 2005-2006 – around the same time of the year as in 2004-2005 – and driving along the M61, just as I had done an hour or so previously. I always remember looking over to my right and spotting the bright white supports of the stadium roof in the distance and getting quite – ahem – emotional. There – on April 30th 2005, Chelsea Football Club had been crowned Champions of England for the first time in fifty years. And little old me – a Chelsea fan from the age of five, a Chelsea fan through the ragged ‘seventies and the false dawns of the ‘eighties, the renaissance of the late ‘nineties and beyond, a follower through thick and thin, good times and bad, from Stamford Bridge to Wembley – had been part of it.

It’s making me quite emotional now, six years on.

That day in 2006, we again triumphed 2-0…JT scored with a header in the first-half and then…of course…Frank Lampard drilled one in during the second period in front of us all. He ran towards us and – deliberately – found himself on the exact same piece of turf as the two celebrations the previous season. He beamed at us and pointed down at the pitch…

“Here!”

It’s one of my favourite memories from that second championship season…and I have both the shot and celebrations captured on a couple of photos.

So – in a way, memories of 2004-2005 and 2005-2006.

For these reasons, I hope we play at The Reebok every season from now to eternity.

Back to 2011. Bolton were in disarray and fell further behind when Sideshow advanced for what seemed like miles. His shot from way out was fumbled by the hapless Bogdan and who else but Frank Lampard pounced.

The text was repeated once more –

“Frank Loves The Reebok.”

At half-time, I had a look around the fellow citizens of the East Lower. I have to admit I didn’t recognise anybody. All of my acquaintances were obviously upstairs, where the 500 members of the away scheme were based. I spotted a row of around twenty identically track-suited Africans, all wearing red bobble hats. I was reminded that I had spotted these fellows way up in the East Upper last weekend against Norwich (I presumed it was the same chaps). My guess was that they were linked to an African club and maybe Chelsea were their hosts for a week or two. I’d like to have known what they thought of Lancashire.

Behind me, I spotted the Rangers captain David Weir, sat quietly with his young son amongst the Chelsea supporters. It took me a while to convince myself it was him…but then had this confirmed for me when I saw a Chelsea fan go up and ask for a photograph. I did the same – but I really didn’t want to take up too much of his time and certainly didn’t want to overly draw attention to the fact that he had been spotted. I presumed that his boy was a Chelsea fan and had gone through normal channels via the club for tickets. I know that he still lives locally – in Warrington – after his spell with Everton.

I quickly texted a few mates in the ground and elsewhere who favour the ‘Gers. It was quite surreal to be honest. It was nice that he was with us and hadn’t asked Bolton for executive seats in a box. Fair play to him. I saw him on the ‘phone a few times; maybe hearing from a mate that Celtic were losing at Tynecastle.

I missed the Bolton goal – I had arrived back from the loos at the break and was just settling myself.

I wondered how the second-half would play out. Just after the Boyata goal, the home supporters got behind the team for the first time in the game. To be fair, they made a fair racket, but it soon subsided. The Reebok is a funny stadium as the end opposite us never seems to make too much noise. Just a few Herberts to our right along the side. We ridiculed them with –

“Sit Down If You’re Going Down.”

To be honest, we were all hoping for a few more goals, but were only rewarded with one more. On the hour, a lovely move involving Frank and Didier resulted in a simple strike from Lampard which evaded the despairing lunge of the ‘keeper. Here we go again –

“Frank Loves The Reebok.”

For the rest of the game, it resembled a bit of a training session, and Meireles and Mata continued to impress. They couldn’t seem to tame Mata the entire game. At times, it was difficult for me to work out the formation as the fluidity of the players meant that Luiz would often go on mazy dribbles, Mata would come inside, Lampard would burst forward, Bosingwa and Cole too. OK – Bolton were poor, but we played some nice stuff. We could have scored a few more, but shots from Mata flew over, Drogba was blocked and Sturridge drifted wide.

Bizarrely, an Ivanovic clearance off the line and a Cech save which was palmed onto the post saved us from conceding a couple of goals.

It was nice to see Nicolas Anelka get a lovely and sustained round of applause from the home fans when he came on as a substitute, though I suspect that the Trotters were thinking –

“Bloody hell, two goals from Sturridge and now Anelka comes on.”

The Chelsea fans around me were stood the entire game – of course – and we enjoyed a particularly loud and boisterous “One Man Went To Mow.” As the fans joined in with each verse, it dawned on me that this famous Chelsea chant has subtlety altered over the years. Originally, everyone would slow down at eight and make the last three versus even more defiant. These days, the tempo stays the same.

It had been a fine afternoon in a special stadium. We will get sterner tests this season for sure, but let’s enjoy the good times, let’s enjoy the goals.

With the rain still falling, I headed back to the car and Parky soon joined me. Unfortunately, we didn’t move for ages and it was a full hour before we left the car park at 4.30pm. We then hit some awful weather and some slow-moving traffic on the road south…it was very frustrating and I could hardly believe that the weather being reported on the radio at White Hart Lane was of gorgeous sunshine.

On the M6 just south of Manchester, the rain was now bucketing down and I was finding it tough-going. I pulled into Knutsford services for a revitalising Costa Coffee and then ploughed on through the wind and the rain.

Parky put on his Big Country CD at Stafford and this kept our spirits up, along with the requisite supply of awful jokes and silly quips. At Walsall, we spotted an ice-cream van blocking an exit slip road.

Parky – “Best get hold of the police. Best dial 99.”

Chris – “The police are looking for a bloke who has covered himself in nuts and chocolate sauce. They reckon he has topped himself.”

And so it continued.

At Stensham, the last coffee of the day; a McDonalds cappuccino apiece. As I headed south through Gloucestershire, 612steve was sending me score updates from the American League Divisional Series, but there was no Chelsea / Yankee win double on the cards. I had hoped to have reached home to see the game against Detroit on my laptop, but the delays and inclement weather had destroyed that idea.

As we skirted Bath, the roads bizarrely dry, we were listening to some New Order and these classics kept us going for the last few miles.

“I feel so extraordinary; something’s got a hold on me.”

I eventually dropped Parky off at 9.15pm and I eventually got home at 9.45pm, some fourteen hours after I had embarked on the trip north.

Bolton 1 Sturridge 2 Lampard 3 Chelsea 5.

Job done.

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